Responding to the controversy surrounding a Danish newspaper’s publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammed, acting Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov announced to journalists in Moscow that Chechnya would not admit “anything that comes out of Denmark”—including non-governmental organizations.
“They (the Danes) play on the feelings of one-and-a-half billion people, they act as instigators,” Itar-Tass on February 7 quoted Kadyrov as saying. “We shall prohibit the Danish non-governmental organizations and everything that comes from there and keep it out of Chechnya.” Asked which Danish organizations he meant, Kadyrov told journalists in Moscow that all organizations from Denmark “have been banned and won’t be present in our republic,” Interfax reported on February 6. Russian state television’s affiliate in Grozny, Vaynakh Television, quoted Kadyrov as saying he was “deeply outraged by the insulting cartoons of the Prophet. The world community is well aware of what Muhammad’s name means to Muslims. I want to recall that a strict ban on any picture of the Prophet is one of the compulsory principles of Islam. I am sure that if we do not halt this artificial fomentation of the religious confrontation right at the start, it will start growing like a cancerous tumor and might have catastrophic consequences for the world community.” According to the TV channel, Kadyrov also said that such actions “aimed at mocking Islam” were not only “an offensive provocation that insults the sensibilities of Muslims,” but were also meant to create the stereotype of Islam as “a fundamentalist-terrorist faith.” One of the offending cartoons depicted the Prophet Muhammed as a suicide bomber. Kadyrov told Reuters that the cartoons “are playing with the feelings of 1.5 billion people. This is the most sensitive spot for Muslims in the world. I think the whole world and its leaders should express their opinion about this so it will not happen again. It is frightening even to speak about it. They should answer and apologize to the whole world.”
Following Kadyrov’s comments, Chechen Deputy Prime Minister Khalid Vaikhanov announced that the activities of the Danish Refugee Council, which is one of the largest foreign aid organizations in the North Caucasus, were being suspended and that the decision was final and would not be reconsidered, Interfax reported on February 7. “Today I signed the relevant letter that has already been sent to the head of the Russian Federation office of the UN Refugee Agency,” Vaikhanov said, adding that the decision was prompted by “the publication of caricatures depicting the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper. We highly appreciate the contribution made by the Danish Refugee Council humanitarian organization, but the publication of the caricatures has provoked a negative response across the entire Muslim world and the Chechen republic, the population of which is predominantly Muslim.” Concern over the security of the Danish organization’s staff was also among the reasons behind its closure, Vaikhanov said. “We had serious complaints about the Danish Refugee Council previously. Deliberately or not, the organization helped militants on a number of occasions.” (As Itar-Tass reported on February 7, there were media rumors back in 2002 that Danish humanitarian aid was ending up in rebel hands. The Council’s director, Peter Sorensen, dismissed those rumors.) Vaikhanov concluded: “We will closely cooperate with other humanitarian organizations and support them. We hope they will step up their activities in Chechnya this year,” he said.
Interfax on February 7 quoted an anonymous official of the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Department who called the Danish Refugee Council a major partner and said that if the controversy surrounding the council’s presence in Chechnya were not resolved, it was difficult to imagine how aid could be provided to more than 200,000 people. The official said it would be virtually impossible to find another organization capable of replacing the Danish Refugee Council in Chechnya.
Ruslan Badalov, head of the Ingushetia-based Chechen National Salvation Committee non-governmental organization, told Kavkazky Uzel on February 7 that closing down the Danish Refugee Council’s activities in Chechnya would leave 40,000 Chechens on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe. “One should not connect a humanitarian organization with those who infringed on moral norms and what is sacred to Muslims,” Badalov said. “There should, of course, be condemnations [and] protests within civilized boundaries. But this is a humanitarian organization that is helping tens of thousands of people who have been deprived of everything—living quarters, work, food! It is wrong to deprive this people of invaluable aid: it is not the money of the newspaper that printed the caricatures, it is not the money of some specific citizens. It is funding apportioned by the United Nations for aid to people.” According to Badalov, the Danish Refugee Council has used these funds for construction programs, food distribution, psychological rehabilitation and small-business start-ups for displaced persons in Chechnya. “Now, with the new law on non-governmental organizations, the Danish Refugee Council and other NGOs can be closed down,” he added. “So that I think the actions of the Chechen Republic’s authorities are completely incorrect. But Ramzan Kadyrov is sovereign in the republic and if he takes a position, it will be as he says.”
According to the Chechen National Salvation Committee, the estimated 50,000 Chechen refugees in Ingushetia are receiving what they need to live. Yet the estimated 40,000 displaced people inside Chechnya itself “have neither house nor home,” said Ruslan Badalov. “And I didn’t hear from the Chechen authorities that, ‘we are depriving you of that aid, but now we ourselves will be helping you, even more than the Danish council did.’ Alas, there has been no such statement.”
Svetlana Gannushkina, head of the Civil Assistance committee and a member of the Memorial human rights center, also condemned the decision to ban Danish organizations in Chechnya. “Denmark is a small country and it does what it can to help the needy in the Caucasus, but it’s top quality help,” she told Interfax on February 7, noting that the Danish Refugee Council runs many humanitarian programs in Chechnya and Ingushetia. “These people offered help at the hardest time [for Chechnya] and they worked wonderfully. They helped thousands of those in need in the Caucasus. As many people will remain without aid if Danish organizations are really denied access.”
Some Russian politicians were critical of Ramzan Kadyrov for closing down the Danish Refugee Council—albeit some more cautiously than others. Independent State Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov told Radio Liberty’s Russian-language service on February 7 that his initial reaction to the decision was one of “perplexity” and “indignation,” given that it was “unlawful” and “barbaric” and ultimately punished the Chechen people rather than the Danish government or Danish aid groups. State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Konstantin Kosachev, for his part, told Ekho Moskvy radio on February 7: “I think the Chechen leadership should, at the very least, lift this decision for the time being. I consider this decision inappropriate. Danish humanitarian organizations and the Danish government are not responsible for the cartoons that appeared in the Danish press. The response is inappropriate.” The Chechen leadership’s decision was also “incorrect in its form,” Kosachev said, because cooperation with non-governmental and governmental organizations should be dealt with at the federal level.
State Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov called Kadyrov’s statement a “very personal opinion” that “must first be taken to the bodies of power for approval,” Itar-Tass reported on February 7. Pavel Krasheninnikov, chairman of the State Duma’s committee on civil, criminal, arbitration and procedural law, called Kadyrov’s statement a “strictly emotional” one that “in no way fits with Russian legislation,” the Tatar-inform news agency reported on February 7. Krasheninnikov added that only a court could ban an organization from Russia and that “no official, even of a high rank, is authorized to take such a decision.”
While some observers saw Ramzan Kadyrov’s ban on Danish organizations as “emotional,” others saw it as something more premeditated. “Kadyrov has for a long time been playing the Islamic theme and regards it instrumentally,” Novye izvestia on February 8 quoted the Moscow Carnegie Center’s Aleksei Malashenko as saying. He pointed to, among other things, Kadyrov’s announcement of a jihad against Wahhabis and ban on gambling (see Chechnya Weekly, August 10, 2005) and his support for the idea of polygamy (see Chechnya Weekly, January 19). According to Malashenko, Kadyrov hopes with such moves to achieve popularity with a sector of Chechen society and to improve relations with the rest of the Muslim world. “But at the same time it very much coincides with the campaign against NGOs that is going on in Russia now,” he added.
Similarly, Kommersant wrote on February 7 that despite the questionable legality Kadyrov’s initiative, “from the political point of view it looks extremely timely. Because this proposal, first of all, fits in with the long-standing policy of the Russian authorities of ‘forcing out’ foreign humanitarian and human rights organizations from the North Caucasus and, secondly, completely conforms with Vladimir Putin’s new aim to limit the influence of foreign NGOs on Russia’s internal political situation.”
Meanwhile, in the latest indication that Kadyrov continues to consolidate his position in Chechnya, the pro-Kremlin United Russia party named him chairman of its Chechen branch on February 7. “For me it is a great honor to become leader of the branch United Russia, because this party was the first to start up activities in Chechnya, exerted all power for the restoration of the economic and social spheres, the recovery of the situation,” Interfax quoted him as saying. He added that the United Russia’s Chechen branch was the most power political force in the republic, noting that it won the Chechen parliamentary elections last November and that a majority of republic and district leaders belong to the party.